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Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company v. Muscoda Local No. 123/Dissent Roberts

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United States Supreme Court

321 U.S. 590

Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company  v.  Muscoda Local No. 123

 Argued: and Submitted Jan. 13, 14, 1944. --- Decided: March 27, 1944

Mr. Justice ROBERTS.

The question for decision in this case should be approached not on the basis of any broad humanitarian prepossessions we may all entertain, not with a desire to construe legislation so as to accomplish what we deem worthy objects, but in the traditional and, if we are to have a government of laws, the essential attitude of ascertaining what Congress has enacted rather than what we wish it had enacted.

Much of what is said in the opinion, in my view, disregards this fundamental function of the judicial process and relies on considerations which have no place in the solution of the issue presented.

What did Congress mean when it said, in Sec. 7(a) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, that 'No employer shall * * * employ any of his employees * * * for a workweek longer than forty hours * * * unless such employee receives compensation' for overtime at a specified rate? No other issue is presented.

The materials for decision are those to which resort always has been had in ascertaining the meaning of a statute. They are the mischief to be remedied, the purpose of Congress in the light of the mischief, and the means adopted to promote that purpose. These are not obscure in this instance.

The committee reports upon the bill, which became the Fair Labor Standards Act [1] make it clear that the sole purpose was to increase employment, to require a fair day's pay for a fair day's work by raising the wages of the most poorly paid workers and reducing the hours of those most overworked, and thus correct inequalities in the cost of producing goods and prevent unfair competition in commerce. The reports disclose no other purpose. The Congressional findings and declaration of policy embodied in Sec. 2(a) [2] exhibit no intent to deal with any matter other than substandard conditions in industry stemming from wage and hour practices. The Act will be searched in vain for a mandate respecting any subject other than minimum wages and maximum hours of work. This court has construed it as dealing only with these subjects. [3]

In this setting, therefore, we are to determine what Congress meant by the term 'workweek' when it prescribed the maximum number of hours of labor an employer might require to be rendered within any week at the standard wage. The Act does not define 'workweek', for the evident reason that Congress believed it had a conventional meaning which all would understand and to which all could conform their practices. The term combines two words in common use. A week is any period of seven days. In accepted usage a man's work means that which he does for his employer as the consideration of the wage he receives. The term is often used in a more general sense as when one is asked what he is doing and replies 'I am working for Jones'. Of course he does not mean that Jones is paying him for each hour of every week of his life. Men are not commonly paid for the time they sleep, the time they eat, or the time they take to go to, and return from, their employer's premises. Thus, although the phrase 'work' may refer to the calling pursued, or the identity of the employer, it is plainly not so used in this statute. Its collocation with the word 'week' and with the injunction as to minimum pay, maximum hours, and overtime for extra work, in any week shows that what Congress meant by work was what I have above described,-the actual service rendered to the employer for which he pays wages in conformity to custom or agreement.

It is common knowledge that what constitutes work for which payment is to be made varies with customs and practices in different industries or businesses. Where the employe is required to report at his employer's place of business and go thence to the place where his employer's activities are pursued, it has been the custom in some cases to pay for the time spent in going from the employer's place of business to the place of work. In many industries some or all of the employes are required to report and to remain at a given place awaiting a call for emergency or other casual service and, according to understanding, they are paid for the hours during which they wait as well as those in which they actually put forth physical or mental effort. There can be little doubt that Congress expected the provisions of the Act to be fitted into the prevailing practices and understandings as to what constituted work in various industries.

The Act does not provide that the Administrator or the courts are to define a workweek in the case of each employer on such basis as they deem right, regardless of the custom of the industry or of existing agreements between employers and employees. Nor does the Act vest authority in Administrator or court to disregard and supersede existing understandings and practices as to what constitutes work or the workweek. There is nothing in the words of the statute or its history to suggest that Congress intended, without mentioning it, to confer on the Administrator or the courts so vast a power over the industry of the nation.

The question in this case then is: What was the workweek of iron miners when the Act was adopted? If the answer is plain, then, I submit, that existing workweek must control in the administration of the statute unless and until employer and employes, by consensual arrangement, alter the current practice.

The record presents no dispute as to the facts. Some are matters of public notoriety susceptible of judicial notice; others are contained in offers of evidence which the District Court excluded as irrelevant; others are exposed in the proofs.

Conditions of labor in iron mines and in coal mines are similar. In both, as the workings become deeper, the men have farther to go to reach the places at which they labor. The time thus consumed by individual workmen varies in the same mine, and in different mines. The conditions in the channels of approach to the places of work are somewhat better in iron mines than in coal mines. The custom in coal mines is, therefore, persuasive, since some of the petitioners maintain coal and iron mines in close proximity, and since the practice in the two has been the same for many years.

In the public arbitration proceedings at Birmingham, Alabama, in 1903, the testimony showed that a miner's day was reckoned 'from the time (he) gets to the face of the coal until he leaves the face of the coal,' and that the eight hour day was so measured. That arbitration resulted in a wage agreement on the 'face to face' basis; that is, on a wage fixed according to the time the miners worked at the face of the coal.

In 1917 a public board of arbitration, whose award was approved by the United States Fuel Administrator, found:

'An eight hour day means eight hours work at the usual working places of all classes of employees. This shall be exclusive of the time required in reaching such working places in the morning and departing from the same at night.' In 1920 the report and award of the Bituminous Coal Commission, which was made the basis of agreement between operators and union miners, employed the language just quoted.

In 1933 the Code of Fair Competition for the Bituminous Coal Industry, promulgated by the President under the National Industrial Recovery Act, 48 Stat. 195, provided:

'Seven hours of labor shall constitute a day's work and this means seven hours work at the usual working places for all classes of labor, exclusive of the lunch period, whether they be paid on the day or tonnage or other piece work basis.'

In 1933 the Appalachian Agreement, approved by the President, provided:

'Eight hours of labor shall constitute a day's work. The eight hour day means eight hours' work in the mines at the usual working places for all classes of labor exclusive of the lunch period.'

Prior to 1938, the petitioner Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company paid its miners either on a piece work basis or upon a shift basis, as did the petitioners Sloss-Sheffield, and Republic Steel. But the common understanding of men and management was that, at first, ten hours and, later, eight hours constituted a working day. This is shown by the proofs and there is no evidence to the contrary.

On numerous occasions the men working in these mines claimed, through their unions, that they ought to be paid for travel time consumed in the mines in going to or from the face where they worked. Their demands for pay for travel time are eloquent proof that they understood the basis on which their pay was reckoned and that it did not include travel time as working time. No agreement to pay for travel time was made and no practice to pay for it was adopted.

In 1934 Tennessee made an agreement with the Union representing its employes, which was renewed in 1935, and again in 1936. It is undisputed that all of these agreements excluded payment for travel time. On October 6, 1938, before the Fair Labor Standards Act was in effect, a collective bargaining agreement was made between the International Union, affiliated with the CIO, and the Tennessee Company. In this agreement it was provided:

'Section 4-Hours of Work. Eight (8) hours shall constitute a day's work and forty (40) hours shall constitute a week's work. Time and one-half shall be paid for all overtime in excess of eight (8) hours in any one day or for all overtime in excess of forty (40) hours in any one week.

'The eight (8) hour day means eight hours of work in or about the mines at the usual working places for all classes of labor, exclusive of the lunch period, whether they be paid by the day or be paid on the tonnage basis.'

This agreement remained in effect until May 5, 1941, when the provisions in question were abrogated pursuant to an opinion promulgated by the Wage and Hour Administrator as hereinafter described.

The circumstances are not materially different with respect to Sloss-Sheffield. That company has bargained with a union representing its miners since 1934. Several times the union made a demand for payment of travel time but this was not granted. A formal agreement containing the same definitions of workweek, and hours of work, as in the case of Tennessee, was executed in 1939 and renewed in 1940. The company continued to pay on the face to face basis until 1941.

Republic Steel has had no formal written agreement with its employes, but it has bargained with their union. As early as 1933 the union suggested that an arrangement be made whereby the men enter the mine on their own time and come out on company time, but the matter was not pressed. It came up again in 1934. After a strike, negotiations resulted in a return of the men to work on the face to face plan of payment. In 1935 the union proposed that the employes should enter on their own time and come out on company time, but in negotiations the matter was dropped. In 1936 the union wrote the company respecting an agreement and, in its proposal, said: 'The eight hour day means eight hours in or about the mines at the usual working places for all classes of work.' In 1939 the union proposed an agreement containing a like provision. In that year the union preferred charges before the National Labor Relations Board but these did not involve the face to face basis of wage computation. The complaint was settled by stipulation. The company continued to pay for a day's work on the face to face basis until May 1, 1941.

The Fair Labor Standards Act became effective October 24, 1938. At that time coal and iron miners were being paid on the basis of their time spent at their working places in the mine. The miners fully understood this basis.

On July 9, 1940, the director of the legal department of the United Mine Workers of America, in a letter to the Administrator of the Act, requested that he accept the definition of working time contained in the Appalachian agreement, which the letter said embodied 'the custom and traditions of the bituminous mining industry.' That definition was the same as that quoted from the Tennessee agreement, supra. The letter further said, respecting the face to face method:

'This method of measuring the working time at the place of work has been the standard provision in the basic wage agreements for almost fifty years and is the result of collective bargaining in its complete sense.'

and further said:

'As mines grow older, the working places move farther and farther away from the portal or opening of the mine, and as such conditions develop, it becomes necessary for provision to be made for transportation of the men over long distances to their working places.'

and added that adjustment of wage rates to any new measurement

'would create so much confusion in the bituminous industry as to result in complete chaos, and would probably result in a complete stoppage of work at practically all of the coal mines in the United States.'

On the footing of that letter the Administrator issued a release stating that the face to face basis in the bituminous industry would not be unreasonable.

On March 23, 1941, the Administrator announced a modified portal to portal wage hour opinion in which he defined the work day in underground metal mining as starting when the miner reports at the collar of the mine, ends when he returns to the collar, and includes the time spent on the surface in obtaining and returning lamps, carbide, and tools and in checking in and out. Realizing that this was a complete change of opinion, the Administrator announced that he would not seek to compel payment of restitution from mine owners operating on a face to face basis but that he could not interfere with the right of employes or their representatives to sue for past overtime and penalties under § 16(b) of the Act. Thereupon the unions representing miners demanded payment of overtime for all travel time since the effective date of the Act, and invoked the penalties specified therein.

In order to avoid possible penalties, the petitioners complied with the Administrator's ruling and brought the present suit for a declaratory judgment to the effect that working time of underground employes comprised the hours of work in the usual working places in the mine and did not include the time consumed in travel thereto and therefrom.

At the trial much evidence was taken as to the practice existing in iron mines long prior to, and at the date of the adoption of, the Fair Labor Standards Act. This was given by miners, foremen, and employers, and represented not any single locality but the industry over the country. In fact, some of the testimony consisted of depositions taken by the respondents, but offered by the petitioners. It was all to the effect that the working time of iron miners had always been calculated and paid for according to the time worked in the mine at the place assigned for the work and that travel time had never been included in the time for which payment was made.

The district judge entered twenty-nine findings of fact. The first four are formal. The fifth is to the effect that, in the history of mining in the Birmingham District, plaintiffs' employes have been paid without regard to the number of hours spent at the face of the ore or at any specified place or station in the mines, and adds: 'This compensation has never been based upon any precise number of hours spent daily at the face of the seam or at any specified place or station in the mines.' The finding would seem difficult to explain in view of the history heretofore outlined. The explanation is found in the fact that, although the men were paid for an eight hour day of work at the face, if blasts were about to be set off at the close of the day the men were sent away from the face some time before the blasting but were, nevertheless, paid as if they had remained at the face for the full eight hours. But this can be no reason for disregarding the practices and agreements of the parties.

Findings 6 to 12, inclusive, refer to various methods of payment practiced in the past and to the character of the work of miners and other underground workers. They evidently are intended to show that, while an eight hour day was in force, the wage was not calculated at an hourly rate. Of course, they do not contradict the fact that forty hours constituted the workweek nor the fact that it was understood that no wages were paid for time spent in travel in the mines.

Finding 13 is to the effect that the unions which made agreements with various petitioners had never been certified by the National Labor Relations Board as appropriate units for collective bargaining. The bearing of this finding is difficult to understand in view of the fact that the employers dealt with the unions representing their men and two operated under formal collective bargaining agreements with nationally affiliated unions.

Finding 14 briefly mentions that the men had several times demanded pay for travel time.

Findings 15 to 27, inclusive, describe the conditions under which the men arrive at the mine, check in, obtain their tools, and walk, or are carried, to their work underground and how they return. They recite that the men have to obey company regulations while they are on the company property and in going to and returning from work. Many of these regulations are for the men's safety. These findings also show that, after arriving on company property, the men receive certain directions with respect to the work they are to do. The obvious bearing of these findings is that the court thought travel ought to be considered work, within the intendment of the Act, whatever the custom, practice, or agreement of the parties. It would be no less a judicial fiat, though somewhat more extreme, to hold that as the men's living quarters are uncomfortable and unhealthy and they must live in the neighborhood of the mines, the time spent in their homes must be paid for as work.

The two concluding findings are of facts which add nothing. They are to the effect that, if all the travel time is counted in the workweek, the men have worked more than forty hours per week and the petitioners have not paid them for more than forty hours.

The opinion and concurring opinion in this court rely heavily on these findings, especially as they were accepted by the Circuit Court of Appeals. But it will be observed that the findings are noteworthy for the feature that they deal, except in the instance mentioned, which has already been explained, with facts which are immaterial to the issues in the case. I do not see how aid to decision can be derived by refusing to disturb findings which do not meet the issue made by the pleadings. It is significant that the District Court avoided any finding as to whether the employers had ever paid travel time or as to the understanding of the parties that the employers were not paying for such travel time. And it is even more significant that the court made no finding whatever about the formal collective bargaining agreements entered into by the respondents with the petitioners in which both parties clearly significant their understanding of what was work in iron mines. And the court could not, under the proofs in this case, have found that these collective bargaining agreements were contrary to the accepted practice in iron and coal mines throughout the country prior to 1941. The petitioners objected that the findings omitted any reference to the fact that the companies had never paid for travel time, to the fact that the day's work for which wages were paid did not include travel time to or from the place where they mined the ore, or to the negotiations and agreements as to working time, and sought a new trial. The objections and motions were overruled.

Reliance is placed on the trial court's finding that the evidence discloses no custom to exclude travel time from the workweek. But that very reliance exposes the fallacy of the lower court's and this court's position. Unless the statute gave the courts authority to make contracts for the parties, which the statute did not make, a court could not support such a contract by finding that there was no custom with respect to travel time. It would be necessary for it to find that there was a custom to pay for such time, which the District Court failed to do, for the obvious reason that there was no evidence of such custom.

To say that we should pitch decision on acceptance of the findings of the trial court, when that court neglected to find facts which were highly relevant and material, is to disregard the real and the only issue in the case.

As I have already pointed out, the Fair Labor Standards Act was not intended by Congress to turn into work that which was not work, or not so understood to be, at the time of its passage. It was not intended to permit courts to designate as work some activity of an employee, which neither employer nor employee had ever regarded as work, merely because the court thought that such activity imposed such hardship on him or involved conditions so deleterious to his health or welfare that he ought to be compensated for them.

It is common knowledge that the issue of portal to portal pay was first nationally raised in connection with the mining industry after the nation was at war and in connection with disastrous coal strikes. And, indeed, the inspiration for the demand for portal to portal pay was furnished by the decision of the court below in this case. That decision was rendered on March 16, 1943. Three days later the National Policy Committee of the United Mine Workers changed its demanded definition of hours of labor so that existing demands, which, until then, had been on the traditional face to face basis of payment, should 'conform with the basic legal requirements of the industry and the maximum hours of work time provisions be amended to establish 'portal to portal' for starting and quitting time for all underground workers.' In presenting this demand it said: 'The Mine Workers desire to take advantage of the law which, under the Alabama decision, grants them the right to be paid for the time they are in the mines.' Thus it is plain that the decision under review was understood, as it must be, as a declaration of law by a court as to what is a work week under the Act and not a finding of fact based on the custom of the industry and the agreement of the parties. In August class actions were filed by the United Mine Workers in various district courts to obtain overtime compensation for portal to portal pay.

One further fact should be noted. The District Court found that not only the travel time from and to the mouth of the mine should be counted as working time, but that the time men spent on the surface in collecting tools, etc., should also he included. The Circuit Court of Appeals, although professing to accept the fact findings of the District Court, reversed its judgment with respect to time spent on the surface, saying no more than that the District Court was wrong in including that time. This is further proof that the decision of the case by both courts below turns on the view of a court as to what ought to be considered work and what not, irrespective of the understanding of the parties. Suppose that the parties had agreed that travel time was working time and to be included and paid for in the workweek? Would the courts be at liberty to find the contrary and deprive respondents of the benefit of the agreement. I think not.

I cannot better characterize the result in this case than by quoting from what Judge Sibley said in his dissenting opinion below: [4]

'If it would be better to include travel time in work time, it ought to be done by a new bargain in which rates of pay are also reviewed. If the change is to be by a special statute (some western States have such statutes), it will operate justly in futuro, and not by unexpected penalty, as here.

'There is nothing in the Act to outlaw agreements that travel time in getting to or from the agreed place of work is not work time. This is true though the employer may organize a means of transportation and make rules for its use. The agreements here that work time includes only time at the face of the ore bed are not illegal. Digging out the ore is what the miners agree to do, and for that they are paid. Getting their tools together and riding or walking to the agreed place of work is not, by force of any law, work done for the mine owner. No one, I suppose, would say that if a group of miners who had spent an hour riding to work decided of their own will not to dig any ore and spent another hour riding back, they had done any work for which they should be paid by force of the Act.

'It is now proposed to assess against these appellants as back pay for overtime an estimated quarter of a million dollars, to be doubled by way of penalty, to compensate the miners for their time in going to and from their place of work, in the face of their agreements that this time was not in their work time. They are to get three times as much per hour for riding and walking to and from the work they were hired to do, as they get for doing the work itself. The injustice of it to me is shocking.'

I would reverse the judgment.

The CHIEF JUSTICE joins in this opinion.


^1  H.R. 1452, 75th Cong., 1st Sess., H.R. 2182, 75th Cong., 3d Sess., S.R. 884, 75th Cong., 1st Sess.

^2  52 Stat. 1060, 29 U.S.C.A. § 202(a).

^3  United States v. Darby, 312 U.S. 100, 115, 117, 122, 125, 657, 61 S.Ct. 451, 457, 458, 461, 462, 85 L.Ed. 609, 132 A.L.R. 1430.

^4  135 F.2d 324, 325.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).